One point that should be stressed is the continuing importance of the photo editor. These people, such as Kathy Ryan at the New York Times Magazine, are extremely dedicated individuals doing their best to nurture good photographers and fill their pages with the best work possible. They offer the best assignments they are allowed to assign to the most promising photographers out there, and argue in favor of extended shoots, artistic freedom, and kill fees if the work can't ultimately be published (often for reasons beyond the control of either photographer or editor). They understand the nature of photography. It's just that most of them are having a harder and harder time convincing management that they can provide the magazine good return on investment.

Even when I moved here in 1992, a fresh picture out of Moscow had an innate value just because it was a fresh picture out of Moscow. In just the past few years, the economics of the situation has completely changed. Images are free and bombard us from all sides; it is now your attention that has become the commodity. It's becoming cliche to refer to this as the emerging attention economy, but in this case it really appears to be the case. In the market of imagery, at least, your attention is just about the only scarce thing out there. And in a world where you're not expected to dwell on any one picture too long anyways, not with all those images out there that need viewing and only 24 hours in a day, there isn't much reason from a publisher's perspective to put too much money into creating yet another new image.

So we've got publishers convinced that readers don't really want to know about the gritty truth about faraway lands, and whatever grit that does make it into a magazine can be purchased from the lowest seller.

The stock photo industry (stock photos are any photos that are not shot on specific assignment--they exist in huge photo banks waiting for someone to develop a need for just that picture) has gone through an interesting change recently as well, with CDs and networks facilitating the rapid duplication and distribution of millions of images. You can purchase an essentially infinite number of pictures of, say, the Eiffel tower, and therefore there is no reason to either pay a lot of money for one, nor is there a reason to hire a photographer to take yet another. In fact, CDs full of them are on sale, royalty-free, for only a few dollars a disk. After much hand-wringing the economics of the business began to emerge.

The prime value of an image now lies in its exclusivity. There are still occasions of companies paying $10,000 or more for a picture, but now they're primarily paying that to purchase the right to the exclusive use of the image. It's estimated that 80% of all image uses do not require any exclusivity, and therefore 80% of the market is more or less economically uninteresting. At least that last 20% should be immune to any further changes in technology, because exclusivity will always be valuable. Photojournalism is somewhat analogous. The whole news segment of the market is like that 80% of the stock business--the pictures are becoming, to use the bygone rallying cry of the nuclear power industry--too cheap to meter. Feature work is somewhat the same, largely due to the ocean of good feature work out there, except for when exclusivity comes into play and the subject is desirable. Celebrity paparazzi shots are good examples of extremely valuable commodities, but again only as long as the competing tabloid can't get its hands on them.

Probably the most enduring and profitable market for images will be photographers marketed through vehicles like Vanity Fair. They need marquee names for their covers like Hollywood needs stars, and they've got the budgets to make almost any shoot a huge marketable event. Annie Leibowitz can marshal hundreds of thousands of dollars to get famous people into huge sets and create images that impress by their sheer bombast. The astronomically expensive movies of Hollywood not only guarantee audiences that they will see big stars and big special effects, but the price also keeps would-be competitors out of the game. Anyone can make a movie. Not a lot of people can make a $250 million movie about a boat that sinks, and that's the one that makes the headlines.

So there I sit in my white shirt and listen to my heroes from my photojournalism days talk about the hard times. When I quit the New York Times I always had the feeling that I wouldn't be able to stomach competing for free-lance assignments after the cushy life with guaranteed assignments. Now it seems like its become a hobby only for the well-to-do, who can self-finance their trip to the next Rwandan massacre. And how many well-to-do are there out there that want to do that?

--------------------- Feel free to forward this message on, but please include me in your cc list ( so I can see where the message has gone. please don't remove this note. thanks.

-- Otto Phol (, March 26, 1998

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